How to Keep Your Team Moving Forward When You’re Not The One Calling The Shots

“My manager had a ‘brainstorm’ and dropped a whole new initiative in my lap.  How am I supposed to keep my projects on track when I have no control over priorities and timelines?”

I often hear complaints like this from my professional students in my project management classes.

In fact, one of the most challenging aspects of project management is this tension between authority and responsibility.

Project managers often feel that they bear all the responsibility but lack the authority they need to meet their obligations.

They’re not totally wrong on that — but they’re also not seeing the full picture.

Project managers are vulnerable to decisions made by leadership teams — whether that’s an overpromise to a client, an overly optimistic sense of scope, a failure to acknowledge reasonable timelines, a sudden change in priorities, or unexpected changes to project specifications.

And executives do sometimes endanger their own projects with these decisions. (And they very often make life more difficult for their project managers.)

But focusing on the shortcomings of the executive team distracts from all the ways that project managers can exercise power and authority.

Be a Project Leader, Not a Project Manager

The best project managers are leaders in their own right —  regardless of their title or where they sit in the org chart. In fact, leadership is so essential to successful project management that I believe we should change the job title to “Project Leader.”

Project leaders inspire, influence, communicate, collaborate, guide, organize, and navigate. They bring the organization along on the journey with them as they deliver on projects. They build successful teams that generate successful outcomes. 

And they find ways to manage upward — to collaborate with their sponsor and executive team in a productive way that results in success for the whole company.

The truth is that anyone in the organization can be a leader.   Because, in the words of Jamie Woodburn, “You don’t need a title to be a leader. You lead by example.”

8 Ways to Hone Your Project Leaderships Skills

Viewing yourself as a leader in your organization allows you to wield influence, authority, and agency far beyond what your job title officially confers.

So take advantage of any opportunity to flex and develop your leadership skills.  Here are 8 ways to get started:

  1. Give yourself the authority and permission to lead.  Don’t ask for permission.
  2. Cultivate a leadership mindset.  Lead yourself before you lead others.
  3. Maintain a positive energy and outlook, and look for opportunities rather than problems.
  4. Focus on people, and identify what they need to be successful.
  5. Be aware of constraints on the team and project environment — and ensure that the team and stakeholders are also aware of these constraints. 
  6. Be a problem-solver — and  help your team become problem-solvers as well
  7. Promote responsibility and accountability. 
  8. Create an environment where it is better to try and fail rather than never try at all.

Your project management skills are certainly important — but project leadership is where you can make the most powerful impact.

So stay alert to the places you can (or already do) wield influence

Don’t Wait for An Invitation — Be the Leader Your Team Needs 

You might not be able to override a new initiative or prevent an enthusiastic executive from overpromising…

…but you can work actively with your leadership to manage priorities and timelines in a way that acknowledges their needs, your needs, and your team’s needs.

Too often I see project managers sink into a defeatist attitude, believing that leadership will do what leadership does, and the rest of the team exists to deal with the fallout.

But that belief is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Only by stepping into a leadership role — however informal it might be — do you put yourself in a position to effect change. 

You may never eliminate last-minute scope changes or prevent executives from embracing unrealistic timelines — but you can alter how you and your team respond to them.

And in doing so, you become a true project leader — and you position yourself, your team, and your projects for greater success.

What are some ways that you’ve stepped into a bigger project leader role?  

Tell me about it down in the comments.

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